Inhumanity: Looking toward Battlestar Galactica’s final episodes

January 8th, 2009 | Posted in Television | Tags: | Comments Off

Battlestar Galactica has featured assassinations, coup d’etat, martial law, suicide bombing, torture, forced abortion, gang rape. It’s a dark show. But to my mind, one of the most horrible moments of the show was not anything so conventionally terrible as the above, but a speech sometimes hailed as one of the triumphant turning points of the show:

In our civil war, we’ve seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over – mortality – is the one thing . . . well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.

In “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”, Natalie, the Six who leads the Cylon rebellion, gives this speech to the assembled Quroum, humanity’s elected government, arguing in favor of a joint strike mission to permanently disable the Cylon’s ability to resurrect themselves into new bodies following death. Later, in “The Hub”, with the exploding resurrection hub in the background, Helo and the leader of the rebel Eights fly the last surviving Three back to the rebel base ship:

Three: And with a whimper, every Cylon in the universe begins to die.
Eight: Yes, that’s right. And it’s a good thing, D’Anna, because now there’s no difference. We can all start trusting each other.

The first thing that follows this, of course, is Helo’s betrayal of the Eight’s trust by taking Three to President Roslin and denying the Cylons access (on the President’s order). But there’s a larger issue here than the Eights’ pereptually foolish optimism. And that’s the idea that the only way the Cylons can be “whole” is for there to be “no difference” between humans and Cylons.

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Why you should be watching The Sarah Connor Chronicles

September 9th, 2008 | Posted in Television | Tags: | Comments Off

The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a fascinating show. It’s a show on a major network (and one notorious for canning potentially brilliant but niche shows before giving them any real chance to establish an audience) that manages to get away with many things you wouldn’t expect possible on a major network (and especially on FOX). It’s a confused show, one that often seems to be at odds with itself, threatening to be torn apart by these two impulses: the desire for mainstream, traditional, escapist entertainment and the desire for a genuinely new, creative, and interesting work of science fiction. To this already dangerous balancing act is a third pillar, the nostalgic love for the first two Terminator films that presumably keeps much of the audience (and thus the show) coming back while at the same time fighting with both of the show’s other main directions. If you’re at all interested in the troubles of maintaining a clear vision on a network television series, this is enough reason to watch Sarah Connor Chronicles, just trying to decipher each week how the people behind the show have managed to corral all these competing impulses into a coherent series.

That’s not most people, of course, and that’s fine. But the reason I point all this out up front is that while I want to focus on one aspect of the show–the aspect of it that is a genuinely new work of science fiction–I don’t want to pretend that that’s all it is, or that the show is a particularly great one. This is not Battlestar Galactica. At times SCC devolves into a conventional if entertaining action series, or into a love song for The Terminator and Terminator 2. The series is often clumsy and unsubtle, the acting by leads Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker is uneven (though Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green are reliably excellent), and some of the first season’s plot threads were too drawn-out and complicated to really work on television. Despite these flaws in execution and its confused heart, however, SCC is a show with a very strong heart, a show with something to say which, even if it’s not quite sure how to say it (or perhaps even what it is that it wants to say), deserves to be heard.

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A plea

August 28th, 2008 | Posted in Personal | Comments Off

I want to tear it down.

I am angry, hateful, pissed. I try to deal with it, by talking about the Weathermen, and later with a fiction piece, which is supposed to be the first of a series about a group of modern day Weathermen (except the protagonist is a pacifist who never involves himself in the actual violence despite being completely complicit with it–written by a pacifist with extreme violent tendencies, of course).

I can’t see any other way. I briefly toy with the idea of eventually working for Amnesty International or other human rights groups, but what do they really do? Make a few people’s lives better for a while, at best, at the cost of deals with devils and many more people’s lives worse for longer later. Thus is history. I want to tear history apart.

I want to wake people up. I want to scream and shout and beat them into the ground, and be beaten into the ground, feel blood and sweat mixing on my face, adrenaline and endorphins mixing in my blood. Euphoria and despair and exhaustion. Collapse. Because to create anew, the old must be torn down: Nietzsche’s tale of the übermensch. But always there is Sisyphus the Joker in the background, reminding me: you will tear it down, and build anew, and tear it down, and build anew, and everything you build will be the same, because it has been built.

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Narrative space

August 11th, 2008 | Posted in Games, Narrative | Comments Off

I’m a storyteller. I see the world in stories. That’s not saying much, because this is true of everyone. What is a story, after all? It’s an organization of reality, an illusionary order imposed by our brains to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical universe. So why say I’m a storyteller? Because it means something else to most people, and the difference between that meaning and my meaning is what I want to talk about. For those with some knowledge of narrative theory this won’t be anything new or interesting, except maybe the stuff about video games and D&D later.

When most people think “story”, they think a book, or a movie, or whatever. Words, images, a sequence of events experienced by and actions taken by characters, fictional or non. For most people, a story is a distinct entity, separate from them, that they may borrow for a time but that remains outside of them. If a story is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a story? Most people say yes. The answer is no.

Well, not necessarily, because “story” is just a word and it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever meaning you endow it with, but there are other words for that sort of thing. “Text”, usually: if a text is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a text? Yes. (Well, actually, I would say no, because I think that all that really exists is the relationships between things and that the idea of “things” is just another false order constructed by our brains to make sense of nonsense, and so something without any relation to anything else doesn’t exist, but that’s for another time.) Unless you mean something else. But using a different word isn’t the problem; the problem is that people don’t accept that anything exists besides text. That, whatever you want to call it, there is something more than text.

When you watch a movie or read a novel or experience any kind of narrative (or anything at all, really; remember, stories are just organization), you connect with the text. You engage with it, interact with it, whatever. Your experience is not the text, it is of the unique relationship between you and the text. Everything that is you–your memories, experiences, knowledge, friends, thoughts, ideas, dreams, whatever–affects how you experience the text. Think about when you see a movie with your friends. You all saw the same thing, the same text; yet afterward, when discussing it, do you bring up the same scenes, the same lines, the same moments? If your friends are very similar, maybe, but even so, your experience was different. What you felt during the movie was your own experience, distinct from everyone else’s (although nonetheless related, because there is of course the commonality of the movie). That is story.

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Episodic and Seasonal Pacing in Television

July 29th, 2008 | Posted in Television | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

If you somehow weren’t aware, season two of Mad Men premiered last night. The episode was everything I expected and hoped for and more, with a couple of surprises along with the general thoughtful evolution of characters that have aged more than a year since we last saw them. (Season two begins in February 1962; I believe season one ended Thanksgiving 1960, although I’m not as sure as I’d like to be.) What struck me–what has always struck me about Mad Men, since I watched the first episode, even as I have grown accustomed to it–was the pacing. Mad Men is a brilliant show, and while these are of necessity rare, it is by no means alone. I do believe, however, that Mad Men is unique, or nearly so, among television shows in its pacing. At the very least, I have never seen another show like it in this regard.

When searching for a way to describe Mad Men to friends who have never seen it, the word that almost always comes to mind is “pensive”. So much of the show it seems is not in the dialogue or the actions but in the inaction, the moments of quite solitude when characters simply stare off in the distance, lost in thought. Of course, describing the show like this usually makes it seem boring and dull, but because of the acting and the writing it’s not. Because Mad Men is a show about characters, more, a show about characters who are trapped in lives they do not want, in a structure and society they do not like but nonetheless uphold like some kind of nation-spanning Abilene paradox, we understand why they must take a moment, or many moments, to contemplate how fucked up their existences really are (and drink a hell of a lot of alcohol).

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Nuking the Fridge: A Reexamination of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

July 26th, 2008 | Posted in Film | Tags: , | Comments Off

Recently I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theaters for the second time. I’m a true Indiana Jones fanatic–hung above my desk, right next to my computer, are all four movie posters, framed–so when I saw the film for the first time, most of my response to it was as from the view of a fan who had read over ten years’ worth of rumors and reports (basically, from when I first got internet access) about a fourth Indiana Jones movie. Even so, my analytical brain went into action when I saw it the first time, and there were a number of things that intrigued me about the film. I don’t consider it a particularly good movie: I think it’s certainly the weakest of the four, and what I have to say here is not meant to elevate the quality of the movie in any way. But there were things that seemed to deserve further thought than usual with the simple popcorn entertainment that I consider Indiana Jones, and so on my second viewing I went in with an eye for something more. Spoilers from here on, for all four Indiana Jones films.

What I realized, or decided, or constructed, was that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just a new movie about Indiana Jones; it is a movie about the death of Indiana Jones–the idea of Indiana Jones, the persona separate from the person of Henry Jones, Jr. Upon thinking about it, this is really strikingly obvious. After all, the film ends with Indiana Jones getting married, something that could not even be contemplated with regards to the Indy of the original trilogy, and an almost literal passing-of-the-hat to Indy’s son (although “Mutt Jones and the whatever” doesn’t seem to me as something that would play well on a movie poster). But it’s not simply the death of one man’s adventuring career, it’s the death of the entire idea of adventuring for “fortune and glory” (as Indy famously quips in The Temple of Doom), of death-defying stunts against insidious villains, of mysterious artifacts of ancient and unknown power. More than that, it’s the death of the unrepentant American optimism of the thirties and forties, when Americans believed in an American dream despite the Great Depression and later believed in their absolute righteousness in the fight against the Nazis, so gloriously demonstrated in the adventure serials that the original Indiana Jones trilogy were inspired by. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about the end of an era.

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The Dark Knight in Three Phases

July 25th, 2008 | Posted in Film | Tags: | 1 Comment »

This isn’t a review; so if that’s what you’re looking for, go somewhere else. (Preferably to a theater, where you can buy a ticket to see The Dark Knight.) Nor is this a critical analysis, although that’s closer. I think the best term for it would be a “response” to The Dark Knight–if only because that’s a very general, almost meaningless term. This is my attempt to engage the film on level beyond “holy fuck, that was awesome” (although that is a perfectly legitimate response, and one I agree with completely). In case you haven’t gotten the hint yet, there be spoilers ahead.

I’m going to delineate three phases I went through with The Dark Knight. I didn’t actually go through three distinct phases–as with everything, these categories and definitions and limitations are mere approximations of the true, gradual, undefinable, limitless experience–but they’re useful for what I want to do here, so bear with me.

The first phase, beginning shortly after the film started and continuing for several hours after walking out the theater, was the “holy fuck, that was awesome” phase. I sat in my car with a huge grin on my face, incapable of being distracted or annoyed by anything, completely overcome with joy at the experience of the film. I went straight from the movie to a party with many people who had seen just seen it that day or the night before (this was the Friday it was released) and spent a lot of time discussing the general awesomeness of the film as well as specific moments. (The scene where the Joker makes the pencil disappear seemed to be a favorite. I agree.)

The second phase, in which I first started to really think about what the film actually said, began to some extent also while I was still watching the movie, but it didn’t really take hold until the initial high wore off some hours later. In talking with other people about the film–an important part of any real response to anything, I think–I realized that most people found the Joker absolutely terrifying. I agreed that Ledger’s performance was amazing, and added that the Joker’s writing was as well, but I wasn’t terrified by him, exactly. I couldn’t quite say it at the time (as in, I literally was unable to say it, not that I wouldn’t say it), but the truth was that I liked the Joker. Not as in liked him as a villain, but as in liked him better as a person than Batman or Dent or Gordon.

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Change

May 20th, 2008 | Posted in Personal | Comments Off

Life is change; stasis is death. I say it again and again and again because people–perhaps myself most of all–need to hear it again and again and again. But how do we change? Or, more precisely and importantly, how do we choose to change? Because externally-induced change is omnipresent, unavoidable, and while not exactly irrelevant, at least not particularly useful as a measure of life success.

I ask this because the directive for change–real, personal, individual change–seems to exist in direct conflict with my other personal primary directive: honesty. I value honesty above all else; I think that without honesty, we cannot reach understanding (and thus faith, mercy, and the ideal/divinity that that trinity represents to me). Normally I come down unequivocally on the side of honesty in all questions of morality–I think “little white lies” are always harmful and malicious despite intentions because they represent an attempt to control another person, which no one has a right to do. But what about when you’re trying to control yourself? To change yourself, you have to lie to yourself–you have to keep repeating a lie to yourself, over and over and over, until you believe it. I don’t want to hurt people, I don’t want to hurt people, I don’t want to hurt people… We have to accept what we are, face our deepest, repressed desires and fuck-ups and reconcile with them in order to begin to fix ourselves, but what then? It seems like the only answer is this kind of fucked-up doublethink, lying to yourself and knowing that you’re lying but doing it enough that eventually it’s true because you believe it is.

One of the things I believe that hasn’t really come up on this blog yet (because it became realized in words after I stopped writing big philosophical ramblings like this) is that “relation is existence”, or that, contrary to symbolic/apophatic order, the only “real” things are what we traditionally see as the relationships between things. That is, according to symbolic order, there’s I and there’s you, and those are two discrete, individual things with discrete, individual identities that are separate and exist independently of each other. This leads to all the problems I’ve mentioned previously of apophatic philosophies–the asymptotic decline in identity/definition, slowly cutting away towards some null point of infinity… But if relation is existence, which is to say that I and you don’t really exist, only the relationship between I and you (and so on for everything else), which is to say that all the “masks” we wear for different people aren’t really masks at all but reality, because our actions define us and not our thoughts and in those moments we believe the masks we wear, then… what’s the truth? When you’re trying to change are you really lying to yourself or are you just putting on another mask, a mask for that special relationship between I and I, which I think must be some great undefinable infinite loop divide by zero even in this system of inherently undefinable entities?

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. Usually I’ve got a whole thought process formulated going in and this is just the transcribing, creating a written record of something already occurred. But here I’ve thought this through to the end, I’m just grasping at straws and pulling them as fast as I can and hoping there’s something at the end. I don’t know if there is and this isn’t organized well enough to really demonstrate what I’m talking about and it scares me. If I say “I don’t want to want this anymore” that isn’t a lie, it’s truth. But how do you make that reality besides saying it and doing it, over and over and over? But if the way to change is by lying enough to make something true, isn’t that giving in to consensual reality and all that bullshit fuck-uppery that entails? Isn’t that giving license to suppression, denial, and the refusal to face reality that leads to so much trouble… Maybe it goes back to will. Maybe it’s not to say “I don’t want to hurt people” but that “I will not want to hurt people”. It could be a lie, still, but I think rather it’s a command to the self: “You will do this. You must do this. You can do this.” Imperatives can’t be lies because they’re not declarations of reality. They’re about what should be and not what is… maybe that’s the way to go.

The funny thing is, I didn’t start this post even looking to think about this. I was thinking about some more mundane issue of honesty that I can’t even remember right now, resulting from a conversation with a friend who holds a more conventional view on the value of honesty (I literally got “if you can’t say something nice…” quoted at me). It was a more nuanced question that simply insults and offensiveness, but I don’t remember what it was because when I realized the contradiction with change that overpowered everything else. I’d honestly (hah) never realized before–or never been able to face before, at least–that what I was doing was lying to myself over and over and over in hopes of making it true. And the scary thing is is that it works, to some extent or another. There are old thoughts that come back, sure, but I am a different person that what I once was, and that’s because I wanted to be. I told myself I would become something different and I have. That’s the scariest and most beautiful part, I think: it works. You can change through sheer force of will. That’s the truth.

Because I can never remember it when I want it

January 1st, 2008 | Posted in Literature, Quotations | Tags: | Comments Off

“Usul, you’re crying,” Chani murmured. “Usul, my strength, do you give moisture to the dead? To whose dead?”
“To ones not yet dead,” he said.
“Then let them have their time of life,” she said.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

Eve Revisted

December 22nd, 2007 | Posted in Faith, Literature, Television | Tags: , | Comments Off

For some reason I’ve been thinking about D’Anna again (partially I’m sure due to the recent release of The Golden Compass, the source material of which features an explicit parallel to Eve). And I think I’m able to better detail just what the difference between the three (original Eve, Battlestar’s D’Anna, and His Dark Materials’ Lyra) is, and why I prefer D’Anna’s story. I’m not going to make a lot of sense here but I’ll give it a shot.

Eve in the Bible is a story of innocence to corruption; the eating of the forbidden fruit is the Original Sin, the taint of which condemns all humanity to damnation (until Christ’s sacrifice). Innocence is conflated with ignorance, and goodness means not knowing evil–not having the choice of evil, really, and being good by default. A Brave New World-esque utopia, where everyone is happy because there is no other way. But perhaps what’s more important with Eve is that this is a one-way street, starting out as innocence and becoming progressively more corrupt, with no way to reverse the descent. We start out at the top and fall down, rather than start at the bottom and work our way up. Purity is the word here, and exclusion: evil is anything outside the first nature, anything other than God’s original creation. Evil is what you can’t do.

Lyra maintains the same essential elements but twists there meaning; once again we have a story of innocence to corruption, but here the corruption is good, and evil is the ignorance of innocence. Choice is good; being without choice, evil. What’s interesting with Lyra is that she still doesn’t know what she’s doing (in fact a part of the “prophecy” is that she must fulfill her role without knowing that she has a role), and in essence is as blind an actor as Eve. Lyra allows for choice, and that’s good, but she still doesn’t have much choice in that action herself–she is a device of prophecy, after all, just like Eve, unable to act any other way, unaware of any other possibilities and so just as choiceless.

D’Anna, finally, is a complete reversal of Eve’s story, as opposed to Lyra’s half-reversal. D’Anna’s is a story of corruption to totality. D’Anna begins as a murderer and a torturer and a genocidal religious fanatic (albeit one desperate to know true love). She acts not because of fate or God or Satan or anything but herself; she decides to go after the Final Five, the forbidden fruit (even though she personally thinks it to be “her destiny”). D’Anna chooses to be able to choose. Unlike Eve or Lyra, she knows what she is doing, every step of the way. And in the end her story is not about purity or descent or exclusion but about the exact opposites. D’Anna ascends from Cylon to god; goodness is not original nature or even corruption but the inclusion of everything, the unreduced totality of the universe.

This is the essential difference, the most important thing in the whole goddamn world, whether our principle of good is exclusion or inclusion. Traditional goodness is exclusion, is the ignorance of innocence, is untainted white, is the untouched Garden of Eden, the original nature. It is the singular, unfiltered, unchanged individual soul, impervious to the damaging influence of the physical world. It is the I or the We against the Other and the Outside. It is cold and brittle and static and numb. But real goodness is inclusion, the knowledge of experience, the white of all colors, the totality of the universe, the constantly evolving, shifting, interacting system that is humanity, and recognition of our place in it. It is the collective, fractured, fractal, kaleidoscopic scatter-shot of colors, always changing, mutating, moving. It is the All, without an opposition. It is warm and soft and dynamic and feeling, it is the whole, the totality, the entirety, the experience of everything.

This is incoherent, I realize, but it’s so goddamned important. It is the most important thing I know. And I have to say it as many ways as I can because I don’t know which ones will work and which ones won’t. None of them will, really–communication is asymptotic. People can’t be forced into anything; they must always learn for themselves, but with the help of others, the suggestion and influence. The interaction between you and I, they and we, that is the key, the ultimate–not one acting for another, but both acting together, a dance constantly evolving, in which no one knows the ending, or even the next step. That is life. Anything that acts against that–any attempt to act for another, or to remove an actor from the influence of the rest of the system–is doomed and worse immoral, wrong, evil, bad. Please hear what I am saying. I doing my best and I don’t know how to say it but it must be said, it must be realized.